After Cameron's haste, it is Miliband who has shown leadership on Syria

By forcing the PM to delay a decision on military action until after the UN inspectors have reported, Miliband has taken account of the legacy of Iraq.

Where Miliband leads, Cameron follows. That is the political upshot of tonight's events. Everything we heard from Downing Street and William Hague earlier today suggested that MPs would vote tomorrow on whether to authorise British military action against Syria, despite the UN warning that its weapons inspectors would not complete their work for at least four days. But a few hours ago, after speculation that Labour was preparing to abstain, Miliband made his move.

He announced on Twitter that the party would table an amendment to the government's (then non-existent) motion requiring Cameron to return to the Commons to consult MPs after the UN team had reported on the Ghouta massacre. He added: "Parliament must tomorrow agree criteria for action, not write a blank cheque." Labour sources subsequently briefed that were the amendment not accepted, the party would vote against the motion.

At 5:15pm, according to Labour's account, Cameron "totally ruled out" a second vote. But just an hour and a half later, confronted by an incipient rebellion on the Tory backbenches, he blinked. The government motion was published and guaranteed that a "further vote of the House of Commons" would be held before any "direct British involvement". In line with Labour's position it stated that "[This House] agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission; Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken."

Cameron is now faced with the embarrassment of recalling parliament to hold a vote on a vote. Had he proceeded with less haste, MPs could have returned to Westminster next week as planned and voted after the UN inspectors had reported.

For Miliband, the question remains how he will respond once the evidence has been presented. He has merely postponed, rather than obviated, this dilemma. But whether or not Labour eventually supports intervention, few would dispute, after the experience of Iraq, that is prudent to wait until all the facts are in. A sceptical public, rightly, expects nothing less. In an inversion of Blair, he has ensured that the policy is shaped around the facts, rather than the facts around the policy and insulated himself from the charge that the inspectors "should have been given more time".

By seeking to proceed from action to evidence, rather than from evidence to action, Cameron misjudged the mood of both Labour and his own MPs. Tonight, it is Miliband who looks like both the stronger and the smarter leader.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband look on during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496